OPINION: Democrats have an unfulfilled obligation to the Labor Movement. It’s time they pay up



Growing up, I was taught that Democrats advocated for working people. It was a sentiment that was passed on to me from three generations of electricians who were staunch members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW Local 1).

The relationship between Organized Labor and the Democrats was once a fruitful one, but the Democratic Party of today is a far cry from the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt that my great-grandfather knew. Instead of actively fighting for Labor rights in face of an increasingly anti-union Republican Party, Democrats put into office with the help of strong Labor support often forgot about those same people when it came time to create policy.

These Americans, decimated by the effects of globalization and technological advances and fed up with promises for change, put Donald Trump in office. Democrats not only have a political incentive to fulfill their obligation to the Labor Movement for its decades of electoral and monetary support but also an ethical responsibility.

The Labor Movement needs to propose an ultimatum to the Democrats. If the demands are not met and the obligation of past support fulfilled, Organized Labor needs to consider withholding future support for the Democratic Party.

The first prerequisite of Organized Labor support is currently being pursued by Democrats. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act, is a resurgence of pro-union policy promoted by the Democratic Party.

The PRO Act, which passed the House, includes measures that address unique challenges to workers and union organizing in the 21st Century economy. The bill includes provisions that would weaken “right-to-work” laws, make union organizing, boycotts and strikes more feasible and begin to protect workers exploited by the gig economy.

“Right-to-work” supporters claim the bill reinstates an imagined union tyranny in the labor market. Other critics claim it inhibits people working as “independent contractors” for companies such as Uber and Lyft from a flexible work schedule and the pursuit of the American Dream. These arguments are ignorant of the democratic nature of union organization and the real experiences of exploited workers in the gig economy.

Some incorrectly observe that even if the PRO Act fails to become law, it is an indication of a trend in the right direction. It’s not. Organized Labor needs to demand results and not symbolic action.

Labor unions need to band together to demand Democrats break up Big Tech and support those attempting to organize within that industry. As more jobs traditionally associated with the Labor Movement are being automated or outsourced, there is an opportunity to reinvigorate the Labor Movement through organizing in the tech industry. Companies such as Amazon and Google are aware of this opportunity and are working adamantly to oppose union activity. Although efforts at strengthening labor rights will likely be challenged by these companies, Democrats need to capitalize on the growing bipartisan support in utilizing anti-trust law to break up Big Tech.

Strengthening labor rights for the workers of Big Tech companies will not receive this same support from Republicans, but that should not stop Democrats. The ongoing battle to unionize that Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., are fighting provides the perfect opportunity for Democrats to voice their support for the Labor Movement. President Joe Biden’s recent support for the unionization effort is a step in the right direction.

Finally, Democrats need to enact campaign finance reform. Anti-union critics attempt to equate Organized Labor’s influence on our politics to that of corporations. It’s a false comparison. Business interests’ monetary influence in politics dwarfs that of Labor unions. If the interests of average Americans are to be taken seriously by our government, the overpowering influence of corporate money needs to be purged from our politics.

These steps are only the beginning of a reinvigorated relationship between Democrats and Organized Labor. Once they are fulfilled, Democrats can begin to truthfully claim that they fight for working people again.

Union members are already some of the most politically active members of the electorate. Expanding their membership and protecting their right to organize can only help Democrats come election time.

Pursuing these goals will also satisfy their ethical responsibility to actually represent the interests of the people who have trusted them with their vote for decades. If Democrats fail, Labor unions need to consider withholding support in an attempt to have Democrats rethink their policy priorities.

(Jordan Kahrhoff studies political science at Westminster College and is a Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He is the son of Matt Kahrhoff, a 33-year member of IBEW Local 1. Reprinted from the Columbia Missourian.)


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